Warnings To Writers

The publishing industry is fraught with desperation and peril for the new author. You have finished your first manuscript and you clutch it tightly in your mitts as you wander into the dark forest of agents, publishers, and scammers all alone.

To be honest, it sucks.

Having wandered in that forest for a while now, I’d like to share my experience with some of the pitfalls I’ve fallen into. The mistakes I’ve made are easy to avoid and a little knowledge can go a long way, so here it is; my insights for dealing with the publishing industry.

  1. Do not, for any reason, go to small press publishers.

Personally, I was excited when I got the e-mail informing me that a small publisher out of Canada wanted to acquire my book.  I took it as confirmation that I had finally arrived and was now a “real” author. The contract I signed even sounded reasonable. My publisher promised to edit my book, design a cover, and publish my book online in exchange for 70% of the sales revenue to be paid every six months. In return, I gave him the rights to my book for five years after the publishing date (and it took him a year to publish).

“This is great!” I thought. Now, I could get to work on my next novel and leave the messy bit of selling to my publisher. But hold the phone here, buddy. First off I have to say, the editing was pretty terrible. It seems the publisher was simply willing to contract with any schmuck on the internet who would provide editing services. Long story short, I spent a month frantically correcting all her mistakes before the publishing deadline…fun. Then came the little detail about selling the book.

The publisher, it seems, had no intention of spending any time or money on promoting any of his author’s works. And as the contract didn’t say he had to, there was no obligation. Naively, I assumed that he’d promote it as he was to receive 70%, but sadly no.

Folks, believe me when I say that promotion matters. There are hundreds of thousands of books on Amazon and no one besides your mother is going to buy yours unless it’s well promoted. Advertising costs money, blogging takes time, and conventions are expensive. The small press publisher counts on the author’s ego to promote his own book…while the publisher collects 70%!

It’s been four years since I published that first novel and every six months I do get a check from that publisher. And when it arrives, I take my wife out to dinner, and I say to her, “Honey, you can have anything on your hot dog that you want.”

2. Beware of scammers.

For all the pitfalls of my first experience with a small publisher, it pales in comparison to working with a scammer. How do you know that a supposed publisher is actually a scammer? Well, it can be tricky I’ll admit as they try their best to look legit. But in general, any publisher who asks for you to pay them money at any time for any reason is a scammer. Remember, your selling the product to them, not the other way around!

3. A word on self-publishing.

It takes about twenty minutes to upload your e-book on Amazon and that includes brewing the cup of coffee you’ll be sipping as you do. Hire your own editor if you can, and then do a few favors for that artist friend of yours to get her to do your cover, and boom, just like that you’re published. Now all you have to do is promote your book yourself (which you’d have to do anyway with a small press publisher but this time you get 100%).

Since your reaping all the rewards from your efforts, it can be worth the expense to buy those ads and such. However, unless you know a lot about marketing, this can be a real pain in the butt. Pimping your book ain’t easy, and it will take a considerable amount of time and money to reach an audience.

4. Big-time publishers still exist.

Sure, you can pitch your book to an agent or go directly to one of the big New York publishing houses. These companies have been around for generations and have survived for a reason. They do not want to put out any sub-quality book as it may tarnish their reputation. Therefore, they use in-house editors, professional cover artists, and do all they reasonably can to promote their books. However, the downside is they are extremely risk-averse. If they take you on, they will have to spend a lot of money doing all the above things and they are barely hanging on in this digital age as it is. New authors with no audience are a great risk and your book is just one of thousands they get every day. Getting published with these guys is still possible, but it’s certainly not a sure thing.

Are you good and depressed now? I hope not. Every year new authors manage to somehow cut through this jungle and emerge with money in their pockets. Write the best material you can and know you have as much chance, and as much right, as anybody to make it as an author.

Good luck.

Clayton J. Callahan

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Write What You Know, Right?

We have all have heard it, “Write what you know.” But unless we’re crafting a work of non-fiction can we ever really say we do that? Biographies aside, authors who delve into the realms of fiction often have to write what they DON’T know just to make it interesting. Take me for example, I mostly write science fiction. But have I ever been to space? Do I have a degree in some kind of hard science? Have I ever been abducted by aliens? NO!…or at least, not yet.

So what’s a writer to do? Well, the two things that come to my mind are to extrapolate from your own real-world experiences as much as possible and when that fails, do some research. As for real world extrapolation…that’s the easy part. Characters can be based on people you’ve known, dialog can flow from conversations you’ve actually had, and plots can be drawn from conflicts you have experienced personally. But then there’s that research part, and that can be a little tricky.

The problem is, you often don’t know what you don’t know. Assumptions can be dangerous as they can open you up to a plethora of errors that you will only discover as you read your Amazon reviews after the fact. And like outer space, many subjects are so vasty and wide that a writer may not know where to begin their research in the first place. But as for me, well, I’m lucky.

You see, at age 51, I’ve already worked in many of the fields that authors find relevant to fiction. Things like police dramas, military adventure, and spy novels prove less of a challenge to me simply because I’ve actually been there and done that. And no, I’m not any kind of Rambo or Indiana Jones, I simply needed a job and found that with my skills only certain people would hire me. And besides, my wife says I’m really whiney when I’m unemployed.

I joined the US Navy just out of high school and served in the Persian Gulf during the Iran/Iraq War, but only ever intended military service as a way to pay for college. Later, after my post-college career fell through, I joined the National Guard to make ends meet and found myself in uniform just in time for 9/11 and the Iraq War. Through my National Guard connections, I met a deputy sheriff and was able to start a career in law enforcement (which I’m still in today). And due to my high test scores, the Army decided to train me in Counterintelligence and sent me back to Iraq as an agent. So for me, writing what I know comes easy and the parts I don’t know do not take me too long to research.

So what did I do with all this life experience? Well, after getting asked thousands of questions by writer friends about the military, police, and spy worlds, I decided to write a book on the subject. Armed Professions: A Writer’s Guide is meant as a starting point for writers who have a great idea for a story but have no real-world experience in the field. So far, I’ve gotten a lot of compliments from my fellow writers on the book and I’m happy to have been of help. Now, if someone out there would just write a similar book on space travel I’d appreciate it.

Clayton J. Callahan

Serenity: Possibly The Most Perfect Science Fiction Movie Ever

Okay, so maybe I’m a little bit biased…but then again perhaps not.

What makes a great science fiction movie after all? Well, in no particular order I’d say; fully developed characters who use clever and engaging dialog, a good balance between emotional elements such as tragedy and comedy, a well thought out plot based on a scientific possibility, a well constructed and believable universe, and lastly general movie stuff like great acting-directing-special effects-ect. (like I said, no particular order).

Shall I start this discussion with an example of a terrible science fiction movie? Sure why not kick up some controversy. I strongly dislike 2001: A Space Odyssey! In fact, it sucks.

To be frank, Stanley Kubrick’s “sci-fi classic” simply lacks too much of the above criteria. Engaging characters? Nope, astronauts David Bowman and Frank Poole are as cardboard as they get and their dialog is as flat as the surface of an ice cube in October. In 2001, there is no balance in emotional elements because there are no emotions. Aside from Hal’s deactivation, the audience feels little to nothing as sterile event after sterile event unfolds upon the screen. Does the movie at least have a fascinating plot? Nope again, perhaps we are as curious as the astronauts about the nature of that big black board thing, but we never get a satisfying answer and neither do they. The universe is also shallow where it’s developed at all and by this point, in this yawn-fest of a film, it’s too late for outstanding visual effects to save it.

There you go, internet, you may now hate on me in the comments to your heart’s content.

So why is 2001: A Space Odyssey considered by many to be the greatest science fiction movie of all time? My theory is because it beat the pants off of much of what came before. In the late 1960s, Americans were crazy for our space program and 2001 took us up into orbit with the astronauts for the very first time in film. Achievement though that was, however, the movie itself hasn’t aged well. And for writers and directors looking to make a good science fiction story, it’s a poor example to follow.

So why do I think Joss Whedon’s Serenity is such hot stuff? After all, it’s not nearly as famous as 2001: A Space Odyssey and is often found in discount DVD bin these days.

I’m glad you asked. First off, If you are familiar with the TV show Firefly, I’d like you to forget about it. True, the show was extremely cool, however, part of what makes Serenity so great is that you don’t need to know anything about Firefly to enjoy the movie that was inspired by it.

The film starts out with a brief “history lesson” scene that introduces the universe, which evolves into  backstory scene as Simon Tam rescues his sister River from a government laboratory, which flows into an exposition scene where we meet the villain, which concludes with a scene on the space ship where the captain talks to (and introduces to the audience) each crewmember in turn which includes Simon and River Tam. Honestly, I think the beginning of the movie is pure genius as the audience is engaged from square one and by the time your butt has gotten really comfy in the theater’s seat, you know everything you need to understand the story unfolding and the universe it’s set in.

The actors are all well versed in their characters (having played the parts already on TV) and are given top notch dialog to banter with one another. The comedy is never silly or distracting but is always there to counterbalance the heavy elements of the story giving the audience a roller coaster ride of emotional ups and downs. This helps, as the plot is quite heavy by itself; dealing with concepts of freedom vs. science run amok in a misguided endeavor to make people “better.” I especially like how the bad guys are not entirely bad guys. The chief antagonist is not a mustache-twirling villain or a knight of the dark side but a human man who sincerely believes that what he does is for the best of mankind in the long run.

Finally, the special effects, photography and directing are all very well done. Of course, we now live in the 21st century and are used to special effects that would have blown an audience out of its seats back in the 1960s. Therefore, a one to one comparison of filmmaking between Serenity and 2001 in that sense is not reasonable and I concede that.

If you have not seen Serenity, I, of course, recommend it. I think you will see that as a film, it is exactly the kind of work that inspires good storytelling while entertaining scientific concepts of social engineering. It shows us what is possible in modern science fiction and serves as inspiration for any aspiring SF enthusiast.

By Clayton J. Callahan

 

 

Star Runners: a New Book by Clayton J. Callahan

I have always loved the short story, once the foundation of a SF author’s career, it is still a beautiful art form that could use a little more room to breathe in this modern age. And I especially like when short stories share a connection such as in H. Beam Piper’s Federation or Keith Laumer’s Bolos: The Honor of The Regiment, and last but not least David Drake’s Space Dreadnoughts.

So, what the heck, I decided to write one myself.

Having written three novels in the Star Run setting, I decided to use that for the connection. After all, in each novel, I presented the reader with a fully formed universe much of which I only had the chance to refer to obliquely. In Star Runners I gave myself the opportunity to expand on those references in a way that is adventurous, humorous, dramatic, and fun.

I hope you appreciate this exploration of the universe and enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Clayton J. Callahan

The Matrix Is Twenty Years Older- And I’m Not Feeling That Young Myself

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So, I’ve just discovered that it’s been two decades since Neo first said, “Whoa.” To be sure The Matrix was a big deal at the time and a bit of a game changer for Hollywood. The slow motion, CGI fight choreography were copied in by other movies for years to come and its special effects were revolutionary for the time. However, looking back twenty years, you have to ask does The Matrix stand the test of time?

My answer; well sort of.

Oddly, in a story about what it means to be human in a cybernetic world the character, I found most compelling was the program known as Agent Smith. Hugo Weaving’s performance of a frustrated cybernetic being showed the true frustration of one trapped in an online reality. But perhaps the reason I identify with Agent Smith so much because I too have often felt frustrated with the new online world.

You see, I was born in 1967 when the internet wasn’t even making an appearance in science fiction. In the mid-90s it started to invade our lives but only to a limited extent and it could be safely ignored if one wished. Now, it is impossible to exist in modern life without internet access and even a troglodyte like me finds it impossible to escape. And like The Matrix suggested, people now live double lives through this new tech. Online, we can be these well dressed, cool, and sexy heroes who can do amazing things. Meanwhile, in reality, most of us are living paycheck to paycheck in as bleak an environment as Zion.

I never believed that science fiction is a purely predictive endeavor.  What passes for prophecy in SF is more often a matter of modern people superimposing current trends over the wistful dreams of past writers. That being said, stories like The Matrix can give context for our conversations about the present and the problems we now face. As such, The Matrix, for all its cheesy goodness is a great cultural reference and I applaud the Wachowskis for their achievement.

Clayton J. Callahan

 

I am Don Quixote…No Kidding

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Today, I finally found out who I am. This is who I have always been and will always be until I die. This is not who I wish to be. It’s deeper than wishing. It’s solid fact, unchangeable as the sun at its zenith. I am Don Quixote.
Don’t believe me? You don’t have to.
Now, in my youth, I was part of the Society for Creative Anachronism, a medieval re-enactment club that celebrated chivalry and honor above all else. I was part of that world for a long time and even met my wife in it. In that society, we would say to one another that we were “in service to the dream,” and we meant it. It was to be an apprenticeship of sorts, and although I haven’t been to a tournament in over a decade, the lessons I learned back then still can be read deep within my constitution.
Like me, the fictional Spanish Lord was steeped in the ancient lore of heroes whose courage and tenacity in the face of adversity was charged with pure intent and noble purpose. And like me, Don Quixote was never a proper knight. No king or queen of any kingdom ever touched his shoulders with a sword save the principality that was mapped within his own heart.
Once Don Quixote discovered who he truly was, he embarked on a great quest to right the wrongs of the world and do all the good he could for the very sake of doing good by itself. And in this quest, Don Quixote failed. He encountered no real dragons or giants, but famously attacked windmills in his delusions. He was laughed at and misunderstood by many along his journey, and he did not accomplish much in the way of the world.
And I also have also failed in many of my lifelong quests.
However, Don Quixote also succeeded beyond the limits of even his shining vision. He changed not the outer material world but the inner soul of the world itself. The light of his sincere folly has thus shined since his tale was first published in  1602 as an example and inspiration to us all. He showed us that people can be more than the limits of their worldly power and aspire to a greatness that no one can truly achieve. Not bad for a fictional character, eh?
I am the correctional officer who dreams of being a successful novelist. I am the local political activist with a laptop who toils to shake the foundations of unchecked privilege in a corrupt and jaded nation. I am the father who wades into the sea and orders to waves to stop splashing upon his children. I am the cancer patient who tells the disease it will not have me without a fight. And I am the husband who never has nor ever will give up on his wife.
And still, I have failed many times in this material realm and expect to fail again.
Will I be remembered as Don Q has been? No. Once those who know me are gone I expect no legacy. Which, I suppose, makes my struggles all the nobler and all the less notable simultaneously. Should I care for such enduring recognition from posterity? Not one whit. For I am the man from La Mancha, and I am not the first nor the last of my kind.
The fight is noble as long as the purpose is noble and the warrior never gives up. Failure is often inevitable, but failure is also completely irrelevant to a Quixote! Success is measured not in the winning but in the striving. And the striving serves as a beacon to others to seek what is worthy and good within the human soul.
I am Don Quixote, but I am not the only one. And I salute all my fellow knights who brandish their broadswords, scimitars, katanas, and pocket knives in the cause of right all around this wicked world.
Clayton J. Callahan

The Camp David / Battlestar Accords

So, it has just been brought to my attention that FORTY YEARS AGO this week Battlestar Galactica was first seen by television audiences. That’s right, it was on September 17, 1978, that the full 148-minute pilot premiered on the ABC network. It’s an event I remember well.

Because I was stoked!

If you’re wondering why forty years ago is in all caps above, the reason is simple. I was ten years old when the dang thing aired, and I have a hard time believing that so much time has gone by so fast. That’s right, I’m fifty…and that’s not old, right?

Anyway, I do recall that day in unusual clarity. Star Wars had blown my mind that previous summer of 1977, and ever since I saw it, I was eating up all the Flash Gordon and Star Trek on TV I could watch. But here in this “Battlestar” thing was something new. Not an old serial from the 1930s or a show that had been in re-runs since the 1960s. But a new space show with all the bells and whistles my ten-year-old heart craved; robots, fighter ships, and blasters–oh my. The show had been hyped in Starlog Magazine and commercials for its premiere were all over the airwaves. I couldn’t wait to see it. What was the show even about? I had no fraggin idea, it was space and that was good enough for me.

On the night Battlestar Galactica went on the air, I had secured a big bowl of popcorn and my parent’s promise that I’d get to watch the whole thing. As it was scheduled, the two-hour-plus show was going to keep me up an hour past bedtime but that didn’t seem like a big deal. The epic show opened with some brief character introduction and then BOOM, the Twelve Colonies were completely destroyed in a cataclysmic Cylon on Human battle.

And then, ABC News broke in with; “We now interrupt this program…”

On that same night, September 17, 1978, after twelve days of secret negotiations, the leaders of Israel and Egypt had reached an agreement and signed the Camp David Peace Accords in the presence of American President Jimmy Carter. And they picked the middle of the most hyped show in my elementary school world as the perfect time to announce their treaty. In agony, I watched for an hour as Anwar El Sadat and Menachem Begin slowly signed a piece of paper and shook hands. Didn’t these people know the fate of the galaxy was at stake?

In my most mature ten-year-old whine, I complained to my parents but to no avail. For some reason, they seemed to think that peace between two actual countries was more important than a Cylon attack on a fictitious bunch of colonies. Nevertheless, mom and dad (and mostly dad) kept their promise, and when Battlestar Galactica returned to our TV screen, I was able to watch the show to its late-night end.

Of course, I wasn’t worth a fig in school the next day. My teacher found me sleeping at my desk, and when I honestly reported the reason I couldn’t stay awake a phone call was placed to my father. To this day I’m glad they called Dad…because Mom would have really lit into me. My father, however, merely took full responsibility for allowing his boy to stay up late; and swallowed the shame in the certain knowledge his son wasn’t destined for any sports hall of fame but would probably waste his life going to goofy conventions and publishing science fiction novels (now available on Amazon!).

So now, I’m fifty, and to be honest I’m quite happy that Israel and Egypt haven’t spilled each other’s blood in over forty years. In fact, I’d give the leaders of the Middle East the chance to interrupt The Orvil, the new lady Dr. Who, and one of my book signings if they would write a few more of those peace accords. But unfortunately, peacemaking presidents seem in very short supply these days.

Still, it’s worth reflecting on. Childhood fancy and grown-up priorities always race neck and neck in our lives. Now, I do not pretend to know which will come in first at the end of my race. But I intend to keep writing science fiction and working for peace in this world as long as I can.

By Clayton J. Callahan

PS: Jimmy, if you ever decide to run again, I’ll vote for you 🙂